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Friday, 20 November 2009

Lorne & Slumdog: Fancy an Indian?


Glasgow has long had an association with Indian food. Well, perhaps it is Bangladeshi cuisine really but the association exists for the patrons of these eateries. Consequently, the city has a reputation for a fine range of restaurants from the sub-continent and Glaswegians love their Indian food. Can this affection be transferred to establishments where drink rather than food is the focal point of their offerings?
Two new bars are trying to achieve just this; creating the link between India and drinking. Folk have taken to Chicken Tikka Masala and Lamb Bhoona but will they flock to joints where the drink served is more ambitious than a lager to go with the curry?
Slumdog Bar & Kitchen on Sauchiehall Street(no.410) is Charan Gill’s re-entry into the bar/restaurant scene. Leaving aside the slightly exploitative name of his venture, the former Harlequin Curry King of his hometown has chosen a difficult site for his new concept in Indian drink and food; previously occupied by Sauchiehaugh, Edwards, Maxaluna, Pythagoras and Amphora to name but five in the last forty-eight years. Amongst that you have a couple of bland chain pubs, a style bar and two more traditional pubs from yesteryear. Quite a turnover but nothing too extraordinary. However, this part of Sauchiehall Street near Charing Cross has crystallised into the cheap student strip of the city, an area which over 25s have now largely boycotted. An over-reaction on their part certainly, but still a part of town where inexpensive emporiums ply young drinkers pre-club, and similarly cheap non-descript noodle bars fill their faces afterwards (Last time I looked Canton Express was still going strong - this is the exception).
Gill has spent a large chunk of his Harlequin-sale fortune furnishing his new dream. Spending such an amount of money you know the aim will be a fresh, innovative look, suggestive of the latest, greatest place to be. If greatness is luxury, then the first impressions here speak of success. The interior of light greens, yellows and turquoises with soft furnishings and warming wall coverings gives you ease and repose as soon as you arrive. I had a bathroom visit to attend to almost immediately, and thus noticed that the lavishness continues downstairs. The toilet entrance doors have elegant portholes, the sinks are pristine white with gold taps, and they have installed one of the first Dyson Airblades in Glasgow (I first came across this revolutionary piece of sanitary ware in John Turrode’s joint in Smithfield, London last year).
I intended to walk up the steps from our place near the window to inspect the bar area itself but an eager waiter in a waistcoat matching the colour scheme of the establishment itself came upon us before I had the chance. He was quick to explain the way things worked here: the menu is designed to offer the drinker/diner casual grazing through choices that are predominantly tapas size, or desi to use the proper Indian term. This fitted with some blurb I remember coming from Mr. Gill himself regarding his vision of replicating that home feel of friends together enjoying a bit of this dish, a bit of that dish and drinks to go with the food and the flow of conversation through the night. Sounds good. As it was around lunchtime small dishes suited our requirements. For the record we chose the Lamb Kati Roll (we were served chicken but let the mistake ride), Chicken Wings in Ginger, Bombay Potato and a Chickpea and Pomegranate Salad, the latter being the most memorable.
As I said, we were sitting in the front section near the window, the main restaurant area being up one mini-level past the bar. We had thought that the menu there would differ from the one presented to us but we were told it is one and the same. The House Curries make up the remainder of the food choice, but they too can be mini- or medium-sized to suit your wallet, stomach or mood.
Beverage-wise we were encouraged to go for the Slumdog Premium lager, a brew specially commissioned for this opening, and produced by West Brewery on the other side of the city centre and an establishment mentioned in this blog only last week. While we waited, I looked at the drinks menu, thinking of another of Gill’s much-trailed ideas behind the opening of Slumdog. He wanted to re-create the drinking scene of Mumbai, from the top-end bars and hotels to back street and alleyway joints that appear everywhere, almost by magic.
Before he mentioned this idea, I had never thought of India or indeed Asia in general as a place where a substantial drinking culture exists. My only direct experience is in Hong Kong, the bar districts there being in the westernised areas. I believed India to be the same. And, I have to confess, Mumbai’s bars only came to my attention via the recent terrorist atrocities there, during which scenes from swanky hotel bars were flashed across our TV screens.
This place could have easily doubled for those bars, but not for a casual street bar, it has none of the freewheeling nature of such joints in India or anywhere else in the world. So the atmosphere is lacking in authenticity, but does the range of drinks get the concept back on track? Our beers from West disappointed, rather bland and not as refreshing as say a Kingfisher. There is Cobra on draught but it is one of only four draughts available, along with only three bottled beers. Wines are better represented but the real concentration is upon cocktails. They seem to be original recipes, thirteen of them on the menu, and many with names derived from the eponymous movie: Jai Ho, Slumdog Diva, Final Answer, Gangsta Blues, all at £4.75. Predominantly lime or lemon based they exude a freshness that is repeated in the line-up of Mocktails, alcohol-free concoctions of which the most interesting is a Bonnie Bonnie Lassie, a mixture of yoghurt and cream, seasoned with black pepper and spices.
To get a better feel of the place I would have liked to have gone up for a closer look at the striking bar, from our table it looked like a nice combination of cream and chrome counter with a black cabinet behind custom-designed to showcase their premium wines and spirits. However, I was deterred by the staff standing there, the guy in the garish waistcoat and his over-eager colleagues who had been a little too keen with directions when I had sought out the toilets earlier, shepherding me away from the restaurant it had seemed. Still, it was a quiet Saturday afternoon, so they can be excused, but maybe Charan Gill will be worried about just how quiet it was.
Our food arrived promptly and was a step beyond usual fair but the Kati Roll disappointed somewhat. Word is that there are more, subtle and distinctive flavours along the street, towards the Art Galleries, at Bukharah (923 Sauchiehall Street), our second Indian-themed opening.
It is part of the redevelopment of the Kelvin Lorne Hotel, which has lain unoccupied for at least five years, and under-utilised for the past fifteen. And having stayed nearby I can personally testify to the backcourt chaos this neglect caused. Situated in the most unprepossessing part of Sauchiehall Street, the hotel was earmarked for housing but Archie Sharif, an entrepreneur with a background in Indian restaurants and takeaways stepped in with £11m to transform its fortunes. Halfway through the project – the historic listed section untouched so far – the hotel boasts the Bukharah eatery and the adjoining Bilberry cocktail bar.
Very different names obviously but the same in-house operation. And walking in from the hotel’s reception area on a Friday evening it was hard to tell where the bar ended and the restaurant began and vice versa. They are barely separated by an incomplete lattice partition allowing you a view of the brickwork on the restaurant wall that reminds you more of a ranch house in New Mexico than the East.
As I said, the food in Bukharah has been well received, a reward perhaps for the bravery of setting up a restaurant serving ‘healthy’ Indian cuisine in an area- geographical as well as cuisine style- already very well served by Mother India’s various outlets and Balbir’s.
But, as always in this blog, we have to leave the food behind and concentrate on the booze. Once we had settled our confusion of where the bar area was we sat in the strip by the main street window and admired the interior of the Bilberry. It possesses a quiet opulence, but a less specific version than that of Slumdog. A fuchsia pink backlight leads from the entrance to the back panel of the island bar, with premium champagnes, vodkas and tequilas prominently displayed. Elegant couches – perhaps more suited for the reception area – and high-armed crocodile-skinned chairs are sprinkled round the room. In our section by the large window the chairs are lime, a nice tone we agree, but the overly bright lighting here distracts from your comfort and does make you feel exposed, as if you are being watched. The waiting staff are smart in their waistcoats, crisp white shirts and aprons, but they, like their more ostentatious counterparts in Slumdog, looked over a little too much, but perhaps my notebook didn’t help. The camera wasn’t coming out, that was for sure. Yes, just like in Slumdog, it was a quiet time- early to mid evening – and a miserable night too, but the wet weather added to our comfort inside and the darkness probably shows the subtlety of the interior at its best.
This level of décor would not be out of place in the London hotel scene, and Sharif has expressed a wish to encourage drinkers in Glasgow to become more willing to see hotel bars as places to drink regularly, perhaps emulating behaviour the UK’s capital.
I have touched on before our reluctance in Scotland to frequent hotel bars as non-residents, and will return to this in more depth in future blogs, but one reason for this may be price, or rather, the perception of price. Sharif sees this as an obstacle and to counter it he has stated that they will offer premium spirits, for example, at ‘entry-level’ prices. We had a couple of gin and tonics, and not being offered a choice of the gin I believe it was Beefeater, this being one of the spirits on offer at the base of £2.95. Add in mixers at over a pound each and suddenly you are near £8.50 for the round. Not extortionate but not prices that encourage passers-by either, nor enough to change people’s drinking habits.
Better is their cocktail offerings, an exciting range that will appeal to blingers maybe heading to local club Boho later or just those out to impress. An eclectic mix of old and new, cleanly sub-divided into: Martini, Mary (Bloody & Virgin), Margarita, Daiquiri, Mojito, Sparkling and Classics. An interesting page on the menu devoted to rum- the Plantation range being one of the premium brands stocked – details the Good Neighbour Policy (or Pan American Program) of the 40s, a radical new US policy of cultural and trade engagement with Latin America that transformed the image of rum from being the preserve of sailors and winos to the most fashionable drink on the block. I do like some history with my drink, so much better than crisps or even olives.
The only let down amongst this fine presentation of drinks was the listing of Grahams and Dows Tawny under Brandy & Vermouth instead of Ports but I’m sure they will tidy this up.
Innovation is the only way to break through pre-conceived notions. Good pricing and range of drinks can help to achieve this, and maybe these two newcomers’ wine, spirits and cocktail lists will overcome their limited beer ranges and lack of bargains. Aiming towards the high end of the market their interiors though quite different, share a no-expense-spared ethos that has largely succeeded, though Slumdog could introduce stronger colours to move it away from a generic feel that can remind you of chain outlets.
The concept of Indian dining and drinking can be broken but it will have to be shattered alongside that of the bar/restaurant conundrum in Glasgow. Much money has been spent over the years in large-scale ventures such as Gong off Byres Road and in Stavka on Sauchiehall Street trying to convince punters that a venue can be a bar and a restaurant together. Both these venues have closed or been re-branded, as, it seems, people still prefer bars and eateries to largely remain separate incarnations.
Slumdog and Bilberry/Bukharah at the Lorne, may however mange to achieve the hitherto impossible and also be the first to create a fusion of drinking culture with the East here in our humble city, to mirror, in a small way, the rise of Fusion cuisine across the world.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

10th Anniversary for Republic Bier Halle


The Republic Bier Halle in Gordon Street, last week celebrated its 10th anniversary.
Unusually for such birthdays it does seem as if this famous venue has been around for longer than the advertised timespan but we’ll take their word for it.
Since revealing its subterranean minimalism to Glasgow in the last year of the last millennium the Bier Halle has been a firm favourite on the city centre bar circuit. While its basic look and image may not be quite as cutting edge as when it opened, the bar and its spin-offs have given one great legacy to drinking in this country, being the first venue to offer a large range of beers under one roof.
The owner, Colin Barr had been a well-kent face on the Glasgow nightclub and bar scene since the early to mid-eighties. His previous ventures had included nightclubs such as Volcano, and The Tunnel and he had been involved in the beginnings of the realisation of the style bar as a concept in this city. By the late nineties he was looking for a different direction, the antithesis in fact. The inspiration came from Barr’s visits to middle- Europe, specifically the vast Bier Halles that part of the world is famed for. Rows and rows of wooden benches; punters served by attentive, ever-busy serving staff bearing foaming Steins; no-nonsense venues geared only for the appreciation of beer.
Barr transplanted and translated this concept to a moderate-sized basement site in the city centre. He brought the wooden tables and benches, and added neo-industrial touches like rocks on the walls caged with wire mesh. A utilitarian look to contrast with what had come before in Glasgow. But it was, of course, a style in itself, anti-style if you like.
From the beginning though, the main attraction was the huge range of schnapps and, more prominently, beers. Over 130 from across the world was the original offering. It was fun to close the massive beer menu, think of a country, any country, and then open the menu to find, yes, that they were selling at least two beers from that country. It was a chance to see a Jeroboam of beer sitting on the end of the bar; an opportunity to enjoy beer as you would wine, comparing regions and subtle flavours, savouring not guzzling your drink; and an introduction, personally, to the delightful fruit beers of Belgium.
Maybe it differed from the large, bright, raucous halls from the Germanic part of Europe I myself had experienced while on holiday, but it was our version and it worked.
Riding on the success of the Bier Halle, Barr introduced another outlet, this time on the south side of the city, Bier Halle Stube on Kilmarnock Road. In the meantime other outlets had arrived offering the same wide range of beers. The Beer Café on Candleriggs boasted eleven draught beers and over 50 bottled. Pivo Pivo (Beer Beer!) on Waterloo Street went further with over 90 beers on offer. Both suffered though from rather uninspiring, generic interior design and the latter was diminished rather than enhanced by being part of the office after-work circuit.
Despite being at the vanguard of a new type of drinking in the west of Scotland, by 2002, a combination of wider market conditions and the expansion of the G1 group, Barr was forced to re-appraise his portfolio. Stube was sold off, along with a number of other interests.
For a time in Glasgow then the only bar openings seemed to be either the G1 Group or even larger chains such as Wetherspoons. However, independent operators have since returned to the development game, with new concepts or re-imaginings of old-ones. Barr himself opened his first real restaurant venture with Salty Dog, a seafood and cocktail bar. Despite this, itself, being a forerunner in the emergence of cocktails across the city, this was sold on too. But ever the resilient operator, Barr has returned, in recent years, to adding to his Bier Halle mini-chain. Republic Bier Halle West took over the old Oblomov premises on Great Western Road, Kelvinbridge, and Republic Bier Hof opened in the student drag of Sauchiehall Street. Both are rather constrained by their environments. Hof by its student area, where discounting and volumes seem to be more important than discernment, and Halle West, in which the mahogany interior speaks more of its past incarnation rather than the Bier Halle project.
Despite these shortcomings it is good to have at least couple more pubs where you can enjoy a decent range of beers. And that is probably the living legacy of the Bier Halle decade. Bars where fad is not the thing, an aping of previously successful styles neither. No, places where service and range and quality of product are the key.
Now this message is finally getting across in Glasgow, with the last 3 to 4 years with new ventures such as Chinaskis, Black Sparrow and Citation being notable examples.
The one outlet that does though seem to spring directly from the Hoffe example is West at the Templeton Building near Glasgow Green. This restaurant, bar and in-house brewery produces its own range in accordance with the German beer purity law, brewing light golden lagers to dark wheat beers. This place’s authenticity is such that Mr. Barr himself can be seen endorsing it on YouTube.
Ten years of Republic Beer Halle has brought us much fun and beers. Okay, the slow table service sometimes lets down the concept, the range of drinks is not what it once was, and the unisex sinks in the WCs can be confusing – but maybe that was because I’d had one too many Tuskers from Kenya or Crocodiles from Sweden. But anywhere that has introduced me to Raspberry Frambozen well merits a birthday celebration.